Although it includes plenty of anecdote, Vachon's memoir differs from Pierson's and Smith's in being a how-to rather than a tell-all. Listen to her carefully--her co-author, critic David Edelstein, has done a wonderful job of catching her tone--and you will learn the basics of everything from budget-reading to location management. (Among her useful tips: Hire Teamsters to drive your trucks. It's a lot safer on every level.) You will also hear expressed, in the most disarming way, a certain clubbiness, which is the legacy of underground cinema to the indies.
The peepshow cinema, Parker Tyler called it in his invaluable work of critical history, Underground Film. Written in the late 1960s, at another moment when the eccentric and vigorous had turned into the overhyped and commercial, Underground Film proposed that a basic fact of social psychology underlay much of the avant-garde: People want to see the forbidden. Whatever artistic theorizing may have accompanied the development of the American avant-garde cinema, up through the moment when Warhol popularized the movement, a fundamental dirty-mindedness animated these pictures.
But what happened when there were no more forbidden sights--when John Waters perfected the cinéma du gross-out in Pink Flamingos, and sensible commentators realized it was just innocent fun for kids? Eventually, violations of taboos gave way to affirmations of identity; "avant-garde" became "independent." As Lory Smith reminds us, the Sundance festival started out as a promotion of regional filmmaking, with the idea that people outside Los Angeles and New York ought to be able to present themselves onscreen. (Who knew that so many of them were dying to leave behind their authentic folkways and go work in Hollywood?) Similarly, what had once been a quasi-secret film tradition of gays and lesbians slowly metamorphosed into the New Queer Cinema. Not only could these films be shown but they could be promoted as queer, right in public--although very often that public was assumed in advance to be limited and self-defined.
As much as I've admired some of Vachon's films, I feel my sympathies are more populist than hers. Call it a legacy of the old, old left to The Nation's film culture, but when I see a picture I like, I want everyone to watch it. Is it the hourlong, structuralist confession of a lesbian artist about her screwed-up father, shot in black-and-white with a score by Franz Schubert? Then open it on 300 screens, on May 8! Throw it up on a Jumbotron in Times Square! Failure is not acceptable--because once we grow comfortable with the notion that a good film won't reach many people, we might as well consign our politics to a niche market, too.
I think of the comments of filmmaker David Riker, maker of La Ciudad, as recorded in John Anderson's book Sundancing. Riker was one of the dozens of people whom Anderson spoke to at the 1999 Sundance--directors, actors, distributors, critics, volunteers, policemen, civilian moviegoers--all of whom contribute to a thoroughly entertaining collage portrait of the festival. Among these, Riker is one of the most articulate, politically responsible and (just slightly) self-righteous. He's also one of those who have their priorities straight.
Of the marketing push at Sundance, he says, "It's a terrible experience, from the beginning to the end.... And I know what's going to happen--or it already has happened--is that there's a negative impact on the work being produced." But he also knows why he's made La Ciudad and what kind of payoff he wants from it. "We expected thirty people," he says of a screening held at a church; "we had over a hundred...and the response that I had personally has been incredible. For the last four days wherever I've been going, people have been recognizing me and talking about the experience of the film."
What can we do for the Rikers of this world, we who are neither filmmakers nor film financiers? We can seek out their work, certainly. We can praise what's praiseworthy while letting the rest, or most of it, pass in silence. And we can refuse to let their films' reception be limited in advance, even by the seemingly praiseworthy category of "indie."
What Jean-Luc Godard said, all those years ago, is still true today. Everything remains to be done.